July 19, 2019

Scholarship Gift Affirms the Power of Education

When Max J. Kay (BS ’73) and Naida Shaw created the Dr. Stanley E. Whitcomb Scholarship at Caltech, they fulfilled two personal goals.

First, Kay and Shaw provided aid that will help new generations of undergraduates experience the challenges and rewards of a Caltech education. Second, they honored their friend Stanley E. Whitcomb (BS ’73) for his wide-ranging work on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO).

“It took incredible perseverance, scientific insight, engineering skill, and management talent to make the project successful,” Kay says, “and we believe Stan played a critical role.”

Fortitude and Commitment

Max Kay and Naida Shaw

Whitcomb, now retired, joined LIGO in 1980 and contributed to nearly every phase of the project, including concept development, installation, data analysis, and management. He led the team that commissioned the first full-scale LIGO instruments. He also helped train the scientists and engineers who designed the Advanced LIGO detectors. It was those detectors that enabled the historic first observation of gravitational waves in September 2015.

Whitcomb’s contributions to the LIGO detectors have been recognized by the American Physical Society (APS), the National Academy of Sciences, and the Optical Society. In addition, the citation for the 2019 APS Richard A. Isaacson Award cites his “stewardship of the global gravitational wave community, including developing the partnership between LIGO and Virgo, and establishing LIGO-India.” (Virgo, located near Pisa, Italy, is funded by the European Gravitational Observatory.)

“Everybody sees the headlines and the prizes,” Kay says. “But thanks to Stan, Naida and I have been vicariously involved with LIGO since its inception decades ago. We actually saw the prototype on campus in the early ’90s. Looking back makes you appreciate the fortitude, commitment, and hope that people had to see something like this through.”

The Human Component

From left: Max Kay (BS ’73) and Naida Shaw at their wedding in 1992, with best man Stanley Whitcomb (BS ’73)

Kay and Whitcomb met as undergraduates at Caltech. They worked together on a project for a first-year math class and, in Kay’s words, “just hit it off.”

Shaw believes that the human component, evidenced in Kay’s and Whitcomb’s support for one another, was an important factor in their success at Caltech. “It enabled them to keep pushing through the intense, rapid-fire workload,” she says.

After graduation, Whitcomb spent a year at Cambridge University and completed a PhD in physics at the University of Chicago before returning to Caltech as an assistant professor in 1980. After a hiatus, he returned to Caltech and ultimately served as LIGO’s chief scientist. Kay went on to receive a master’s degree in physics at UC Berkeley, then chose a different path.

From left: Stanley Whitcomb (BS ’73), Naida Shaw, Max Kay (BS ’73), and Magda Abou-Saif at Shaw and Kay’s wedding in 1992

He earned an MBA from Stanford University and, in 1977, founded KCI Computing. Even though their careers followed different trajectories, the friendship Kay and Whitcomb formed as students has endured for 50 years.

The Power of Education and Commitment

Kay made his first gift to Caltech in the 1980s. Since then, as members of the Caltech Associates, he and Shaw have strengthened their connection to the Institute.

“I have a strong feeling in my heart for Caltech, and being in a position to do something for Caltech makes me feel good,” Kay says. “By calling attention to Stan’s accomplishments, I hope the Whitcomb Scholarship will inspire others about the power of education and commitment.”

The couple’s philanthropy advances one of the highest priorities of Break Through: The Caltech Campaign: making Caltech’s degree programs financially accessible to all. Only six percent of institutions nationwide admit undergraduate students on a need-blind basis, and Caltech is one of them. Scholarship funds help ensure that Caltech can enroll the most talented and promising undergraduates by providing aid that meets 100 percent of a family’s demonstrated financial need.

Caltech’s Undergraduate Scholarship Challenge helped Kay and Shaw fully endow their gift and see it take effect immediately. Their $75,000 contribution was augmented by $50,000: $25,000 that was combined with their investment to establish a fully endowed $100,000 scholarship, and an additional $25,000 to fund a current-use scholarship that was awarded to a student right away.

The opportunity to meet the first Whitcomb Scholar, computer science major Jagath Vytheeswaran (class of 2021), was meaningful to Shaw. “We connected,” she says. “He knows who we are, and he also met Stan. Jagath told us he is inspired to do well and, sometime when he’s able, to give back.”

To learn how you can establish a named scholarship fund, or to request more information about Caltech’s scholarship challenge, please contact Megan Denison, development officer for academic divisions and regions, at (626) 395-1529 or mdenison@caltech.edu.